Our assigned subject is bribery abroad. So naturally some have wondered why we haven’t talked about Chevron’s legal tangle in Ecuador and accusations it might have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act there. A couple of readers — apparently from Ecuador — even sent us what they said was evidence against the American oil company. It wasn’t. We only found news stories from local papers and a copy of our own post about Chevron’s $30 million oil-for-food settlement (here).
The reason we haven’t talked about the Ecuador case is because we have no idea what it’s really about. Like a gargantuan version of Jon & Kate, the back-and-forth charges have left us completely confused — too addled to have an opinion.
As for facts, here’s what we know, or what we think we know:
The case started 16 years ago. A group of Amazon residents alleged that Texaco, which Chevron acquired in 2001, contaminated large areas of rain forest before ending its operations and leaving the country. In a civil suit in the local courts, Chevron is facing damages that could reach $27 billion. The FCPA allegations (coming from sources in Ecuador, including the attorney general) involve an alleged plot by the oil company to bribe the country’s leaders and a judge hearing the case.
Chevron says it’s the Ecuador government and courts that haven’t been honest. As evidence, it released tapes in August that appeared to implicate politicians and the judge in a plot to take $3 million in kickbacks from clean-up contractors if Chevron is found liable. Just how and why the tapes were made and given to Chevron is a mystery. The New York Times quoted Steven Donziger, a lawyer representing the Ecuadorans suing Chevron, as saying: “I suspect this is a Chevron sting operation; there needs to be an investigation into Chevron’s role in this as much as the judge’s. I find it awfully odd that these individuals would secretly film meetings using James Bond devices like a spy watch and a spy pen.”
One of the men who made the tapes — yes, using “watches and pens implanted with bugging devices” — Diego Borja, was a Chevron contractor providing logistics services. The company said it didn’t pay him for the tapes but gave him money to leave Ecuador with his family because of safety concerns. “Chevron had no involvement in the videotaping,” Kent Robertson, a company spokesman, told the New York Times. “Chevron referred this matter to the U.S. Department of Justice and Ecuador’s prosecutor general after making every reasonable effort to verify the evidence that was presented.”
Professor Ralph Steinhardt at George Washington University Law School — a heavyweight expert in international civil litigation — told the Times: “For someone who is trying to figure out what you can learn from this, it’s not as though it yields a rational narrative. In trying to appreciate the complexities of this case, you need to have the skills of a poker player rather than the skills of a lawyer.”
OK then. We’ve often displayed to ourself and others a lack of poker-playing skills. So for now at least, we fold.